KANSAS CITY, MO. – The Broncos could only get right Sunday night by grabbing what is left. Scraps. A final wild card spot.
The formula crystallized this week. No more disclaimers. The Broncos required wins in their final two games and crossed fingers until their knuckles whitened and palms sweated.
It came with a perceived given: The desperation would produce maximum execution and effort. Both were questionable in a first half that will long be remembered in this forgettable season. The Broncos ended the defense of their championship with a 33-10 loss to Kansas City at soggy Arrowhead Stadium.
"This is going to hurt for a long time," safety Darian Stewart said. "We are going to have to hear this (expletive) for another year."
In a year sabotaged by a disappointing offense, the defense sank at the worst time, allowing 330 first half yards, their most since 1981. The idea of Denver missing the postseason became a reality when the Broncos lost at home to the Chiefs last month. But not like this.
Even Christmas miracles have an expiration date.
The Broncos, who missed playoffs for first time since 2010, could not have scripted a worse start, raising questions about future personnel and position coaching staff changes. Check that. They could have gone three-and-out for the 51st time. The Broncos made a first down, then promptly fell down. For the eighth time this season, the opponent scored a touchdown on its initial drive against Denver, foreshadowing a mouths agape collapse. Using a fancy script mix of formations and read option, the Chiefs streaked 77 yards on seven plays through the rain. Kansas City quarterback Alex Smith, looking like he received the call from Urban Meyer at Utah, finished the drive with a 10-yard scamper. It opened a wound that helps explains this season's disappointment: Only the one-win Cleveland Browns have allowed more points (62) on first possessions than the Broncos (55).
Coach Gary Kubiak correctly called it the Broncos’ worst defensive half of the season. The problem is the offense has endured many like it. Trevor Siemian, by any statistical measure, played his worst game as a Bronco. He completed 17 of 43 passes for 183 yards and one interception. As one of the Broncos coaches boarded the elevator down to the locker room, he screamed an expletive, a fitting summary of the night, if not season.
"Obviously we are frustrated," Siemian said. It's possible rookie Paxton Lynch will start the finale as the Broncos are reduced to playing spoilers and have begun looking to 2017.
Denver entered the game with one touchdown in last 10 quarters. Their 13 points in a two-game span represented lowest since 1992. It gets worse. The last time the Broncos scored 10 or fewer points in three straight games was 1966. They needed Siemian to be great, and he was dismal. He consistently misfired, completing 13 of his first 33 passes for 139 yards, looking indecisive and inaccurate.
The game was ugly in ways unimaginable for a team that spoke of pride, focus and making a last stand.
"We just weren't good enough. We haven't been good enough all season, man," cornerback Chris Harris told Denver7. "Our run defense has been suspect the whole season, and when you don't fix it and don't improve this is what you get -- no playoffs."
The Chiefs opened up a 21-7 lead. It wasn't the margin but the ease of the gashing. Denver's defense looked listless, helpless. The Broncos allowed a 70-yard touchdown run to Tyreek Hill, the longest of the season. The next drive, Smith connected with Travis Kelce on an 80-yard touchdown pass, the longest this season. On a bubble screen. Kelce set a single-game franchise record for receiving yards by a tight end.
Only Smith's errant pass to rookie safety Justin Simmons spared the Broncos complete humiliation. He secured the wobbler as linebacker Corey Nelson hit the quarterback. Simmons returned it 38 yards, setting up Justin Forsett's first touchdown as a Bronco.
It became a footnote, lost in the disappointment. The Broncos allowed 243 yards on 16 first-quarter plays, a week after cornerback Aqib Talib shouted down left tackle Russell Okung in the locker room for the offense's lack of impact. The Broncos have been outscored by 61 points in the first quarter, their worst mark since 1964.
As puzzling as the play was the coaching. The Broncos eschewed a 53-yard field goal with a fake with 23 seconds remaining in the first half. It sat as an odd juxtaposition to the team’s typical conservative nature. Rather than let Brandon McManus attempt to pull the Broncos to within eight points – he made a 52-yarder six minutes earlier – the gadget play fizzled. McManus had a clear opening, but with no receiver in a pattern was easily tracked down after a six-yard gain on fourth-and-10. It was a strange call unless rain deemed the kick unmakeable. Even if McManus had converted on the run, the Broncos would have had only two plays at the end zone.
The second half was death by paper cut. The Broncos' offense continued to stagger -- right tackle Donald Stephenson was called for five penalties, four accepted -- running back Devontae Booker lost a fumble and Kalif Raymond coughed up a kick. The Chiefs finished the scoring in memorable fashion. With just under 2 minutes, remaining defensive tackle Dontari Poe took a direct snap and lobbed a jump pass to tight end Demetrius Harris. At 346 pounds, Poe became the heaviest player in NFL history to throw a touchdown pass.
"There was time on the clock, and they were close to score," cornerback Aqib Talib said. "It's football."
It wasn't supposed to end this way. The defense of the title was supposed to be tested in late January on the road, possibly in New England. Instead, the championship run died on a damp evening where moods and play was as sour as the weather.
"The effort has always been there," outside linebacker Von Miller said. "We have great leadership from top down. John Elway is a mastermind. I believe in those guys 110 percent. We just lost tonight."
Defensive end Derek Wolfe showed toughness to play Sunday after missing a week of practice with injuries and illness. He survived only the first quarter before heading to the locker room after hurting his neck for the third time this season. Wolfe suffered two stingers in last week’s loss to the Patriots.
"I got elbowed in the back of the head," said Wolfe, whose season could be over.
The Broncos face tough questions this offseason. After the offensive line struggled mightily for the second straight season, will the Broncos make coaching staff changes? The identity of the Kubiak offense has long been running the football and throwing to the tight end. The Broncos rank in the bottom five in rushing, and there tight ends have not been a factor all year. Will Kubiak consider changes in assignments, like who coaches the offensive line? Or something drastic like a new coordinator? Nothing can be discounted after the team has dropped seven of its last 11 games.
The quarterback issue will continue to linger. Siemian has put himself in the lead to win the job, but will have to hold off Paxton Lynch, who has impressed the staff with his growth in a near-redshirt season. And as you know, until Tony Romo settles on a new team his name will be connected to the Broncos. Romo is under contract, which would require a trade unless the Cowboys grant his release to give him more flexibility in choosing a new team.
Defensive back Kayvon Webster suffered a concussion when blocked to the ground by linebacker Terrance Smith. Webster left in the cart, but was able to walk.
Broncos nose tackle Sylvester Williams missed a few snaps after injuring his left knee, but returned. He hurt his shoulder as well, he said.
The Broncos used Kalif Raymond on returns after he was an unpopular scratch last week. He struggled. The rookie remained inconsistent on punts, and canceled out a 40-yard kick return with a lost fourth quarter fumble. Likely add a return man on the Broncos’ offseason wish/draft list.
The Broncos have won three games in December in Kansas City. In a testament to how difficult the task is, coach Mike Shanahan never won at Arrowhead in the month. But he did win a playoff game in January here on the Broncos’ road to their first Super Bowl title.
The Broncos missed the intensity and big hits of safety T.J. Ward. He missed the game with a concussion along with tight ends Virgil Green and A.J. Derby.
Right tackle Donald Stephenson was called for five penalties, with four accepted, in his return to Kansas City.